The Buffalo News


BILL MICHELMORE; News Niagara Bureau

November 28, 1999


A power struggle is heating up in Niagara County between members of a laborers local and the forces of nonunion construction, and some observers say Niagara County is already the big loser.

Public officials and principals of nonunion construction companies claim a long record of high costs and intimidation by some members of Laborers Local 91 scares away development in Niagara County.

A lawyer for the laborers union said reports of violence by union members are overblown.

"The numbers of cases of violence, even claimed violence, is minuscule," said Eugene S. Salisbury of the Buffalo law firm of Lipsitz, Green, Fahringer, Roll, Salisbury and Cambria.

But there is a well-documented history of violence by some of the nearly 700 members of the laborers union, according to law enforcement officials. That violence includes charges o assaults, inciting riots, tire slashings and other acts of vandalism, law enforcement officials said.

"We steer clear of Niagara County because of the potential for violence," said Fred Boheim, owner of Gypsum Systems, a nonunion construction company in Elma.

Nonunion contractors also cited several other reasons to stay away from Niagara County, including the poor economy and lower population. But the reputation of union members is frequently a deciding element, they said.

"I can't think of a single factor more detrimental to development in Niagara County than the actions" of some members of Local 91, said Ted Van Deusen, a contractor who hires only nonunion workers and said intimidation from union members drove him out of the county.

"Many developers who tried to do business in Niagara County 10 or 20 years ago encountered a lot of labor problems, and there's still that perception," said James J. Allen, executive director of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency. "But I think over time, Niagara County can and will develop."

What does all this mean in a region that generally has labor peace on such projects as the Ralph Wilson Stadium renovation and Buffalo Niagara International Airport construction?

Some developers pay more than $100,000 for an acre of land in Amherst, rather than pay $15,000 an acre for similar land just across the Niagara County line in Wheatfield.

Construction permits in all of Niagara County last year totaled $53.8 million, compared with $90 million in Amherst alone, which has a similar population.

Recently, to ensure the safety of his workers and equipment on a project in Niagara County employing union and nonunion workers, one owner surrounded the site with an 8-foot-high barbed wire fence and hired armed guards and guard dogs around the clock.

"We had extra concerns on that construction site," said Niagara County Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein.

He said his deputies kept a close watch and averted any trouble. Beilein said union officials have told him they sometimes cannot control the actions of their members when anger erupts on the work site.

"We do respond, and we do make arrests when warranted," Beilein said.

Last year, a union steward for Laborers Local 91 was charged with assault and inciting to riot after police said he led an attack on six union bricklayers during construction of a Wegmans supermarket on Military Road.

Police said about a dozen laborers assaulted the men, all members of Bricklayers Local 45, because they were cleaning up their work area, a job the laborers said only they should have done. Four of the bricklayers were sent to the hospital, and two couldn't return to work.

The persistent reputation has been built up by other incidents over the past decade:

Faery's Landscaping of Ransomville, a nonunion contractor, in September withdrew its $ 50,665 bid to landscape a park on Main Street because of potential union problems, it was reported in The Buffalo News.

A carpenter working on the new Niagara Falls High School was sent to Kenmore Mercy Hospital last March after police said he was attacked by members of Local 91 for sweeping a floor to prepare for his job, work the laborers said they should have done.

The carpenter, who didn't want to give his name, is back on the job but said he's extra careful around the laborers.

"I'm watching my back," he said.

During the spring 1998 renovation of the former Clarion Hotel, now the Holiday Inn Select, police said Local 91 pickets protesting the hiring of nonunion workers injured a truck driver, slashed car tires and punctured others by throwing spikes on Rainbow Boulevard, and blocked a tourist bus from leaving the hotel.

Union members picketed the construction sites of the Yellow Goose Market and Ted's Jumbo Red Hots in Lockport two years ago, where Mulvey Construction Co., which used a nonunion construction company, was working.

Windows were shattered, and the home of Timothy Mulvey, the owner of the construction company was picketed so heavily that a State Supreme Court judge had to issue an order to keep union members away.

Earlier that year, three members of Local 91 were arrested after damaging contractors' property at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Base. The previous March, also at the air base, state police arrested a member of the local after a car was damaged during a protest over the use of out-of-town construction workers at the base.

No one at the union offices, at 2556 Seneca Ave., including business manager Michael Quarcini, returned repeated calls seeking comment on the union's view of the builders' and others' allegations.

Salisbury, however, denied that violence is prevalent among the local's members.

Quarcini does believe in a strong union for laborers and workers' rights, his attorney said.

"He's a hell of a fighter for workers' rights," said Salisbury.

More than 10 years ago, Van Deusen, who started as a carpenter, was a project supervisor with Grande Construction of Niagara Falls, the only nonunion general contractor in Niagara County. Van Deusen, who grew up in Niagara County, hasn't worked in the county since a day in 1987 when he was confronted by five men while working on a project to build homes for Cerebral Palsy Association and told to "go union."

He's currently project manager for an Erie County construction company, but said he wants to be able work in his native county. That's one of the reasons he's speaking out now. "I'm fed up with these thugs," said Van Deusen. "The only way Niagara Falls can move ahead and develop is to get rid of the union problem. Someone has to strip them of their power."

Van Deusen said he has taken out a $1 million life insurance policy since criticizing the union.

"I pray that in speaking out, I have not put my family, friends or fellow tradespeople in harm's way," Van Deusen said. "The fear that Laborers Local 91 instills in nonunion and union tradespeople alike is as real as the dilapidated condition of downtown Niagara Falls."

Contractors large and small say they have been scared off by the threats and outright violence of some members of Laborers Local 91.

Union members, however, level charges of their own against the nonunion construction companies. Union lawyer Salisbury says the nonunion builders are attacking Local 91 because of labor costs.

"It's not because of the violence (that the nonunion contractors stay away)," said Salisbury. "It's because of their reluctance to pay union wages and benefits."

The average pay for a union construction worker last year was $790 a week, compared to $ 496 for a nonunion worker, according to economist Diane Herz of the state Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The higher pay reflects the superior training and skills of union workers, said Clyde Johnston, the president of the Niagara County Building Trades Council, which represents 5,000 workers in 17 unions in both Niagara and Erie counties.

"Nonunion contractors are looking for cheap labor and often bring in workers from outside the county," Johnston said. "We always use local labor. That's what we're fighting for -- to keep the work here."

Nonunion contractors, however, said union pay scales -- twice that of nonunion -- and the limited competition among bidders can drive up a project's cost by at least 30 percent.

There also are some Erie County contractors who use union labor and say they have no problems with Laborers Local 91.

"We have a good working relationship with the Laborers Local and all unions," said Gary Bichler, president of Louis P. Ciminelli Construction Co. Inc.

But comparisons of costs demonstrate their case, nonunion contractors said.

Boheim's nonunion drywall construction company worked on a Wal-Mart in Clarence in Erie County, while union labor built an identical Wal-Mart in Lockport. The cost of the Lockport construction was 38 percent more than the one in Clarence, with most of the higher costs attached to the labor, Boheim said.

Building materials cost less in Niagara County because of the county's 7 percent sales tax, which is 1 percentage point lower than in Erie County.

When a large commercial project in Erie County is put to a bid, there are typically 10 to 15 bidders from both open-shop and union contractors, Van Deusen said. A similar project in Niagara County will only have two to five bids, all from union contractors, Boheim confirmed.

Construction jobs that allow nonunion and union contractors to bid on the project are more competitive, which brings the cost down, builders said. The more shops that bid, the lower the price. Van Deusen, who is director of the National Association of Merit Tradespeople, said this fact alone will eventually bury the unions.

Van Deusen said 85 percent of the tradespeople in Western New York today are nonunion.

That figure is supported by national statistics that last year put the percentage of nonunion workers at 86 percent, according to Abraham Mosisa, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In New York State, 73 percent of workers are nonunion, said the bureau's supervisory economist Howard Hayghe.

The nonunion companies say all they want is a fair shake.

"Opening up Niagara County to competitive bidding from nonunion contractors will open a floodgate of development and construction," said Van Deusen. "The stream of morning rush hour traffic over the Grand Island Bridge would change dramatically from southbound to northbound."

Non-union contractor Ted Deusen says he no longer works in Niagara County because of intimidation by some union members.


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